The USC Trojans were dealt their first blow of the 2014 season on Tuesday, when word came out that redshirt freshman defensive lineman Kenny Bigelow will miss the entire season with a torn ACL. Having already exhausted his redshirt, Bigelow will have three years of eligibility remaining starting next fall.
But of course, that doesn’t help defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and defensive line coach Chris Wilson in establishing a rotation up front in 2014.
The Trojans are expected to use a base 3-4 defense with a defensive tackle, nose tackle and defensive end as the three down linemen, flanked by a stand-up rush end that serves as a hybrid linebacker.
Going into this April’s spring game, Steve Sarkisian’s two-deep had Kenny Bigelow as a the second nose tackle behind Antwaun Woods, but that would not have prevented some juggling along the line in various packages.
Here’s a look at three players that could have a bigger work load and/or have better opportunity with Bigelow now out of the mix this season.
Redshirt Junior, DT
Pelon now has the chance to make an immediate impact as junior college transfer as George Uko is in the NFL and Bigelow done for the year, he will without question be thrown into the fire right away. With a thin defensive line corps, he has to be. The 6-foot-5, 285 pound Pelon can play all three positions along the defensive line, but he should find himself more adept at playing the defensive tackle role in Wilcox’s hybrid 3-4 base. Pelon started the spring game at tackle, and had first team reps for the majority of spring camp as Leonard Williams sat out. That being said, with Bigelow not there to take away some reps, Pelon now is the immediate backup to two spots on the defensive line, filling in for both Williams and Woods in the rotation. Given how much the Trojans will be rotating the line through various packages based on down and distance, Pelon becomes a de-facto/pseudo starting defensive lineman. Expect for him to swap in for Woods repeatedly, to give the Trojans multiple looks, such as two defensive tackles to a spoof an off-the-ball 4-3 front.
Redshirt Junior, DE
While Pelon will likely stay on the interior of the line, Texas Tech transfer Delvon Simmons is a big body that favors the traditional defensive end position. He played end at TTU, which is significant because Leonard Williams is perhaps better suited to play at tackle in the hybrid 3-4 vs. playing as an end in Clancy Pendergast’s 5-2 last season. Simmons had true first team reps at end in the spring and that should continue going into the fall. Where Bigelow’s impact comes into play, is that Simmon’s fill-in in certain packages was likely going to be Williams or Bigelow, in an act of shuffling looks. Now, it probably falls on the shoulders of Greg Townsend Jr., Charles Burks or even Don Hill. Townsend missed all of last season with an injury, while Burks hasn’t had much experience and has been bounced around between defensive end and fullback. As for the freshman Hill, he’s raw at this point and might wind up being a better option at rush end or outside linebacker than a down defensive end like Simmons. Similar positional concerns can be said for fellow freshmen Malik Dorton and Olajuwon Tucker, who project as a rush end and outside linebacker respectively. Without Bigelow, the Trojans need defensive production from Simmons and perhaps more snaps.
Redshirt Junior, NT
Last but not least is the 300-pound Cody Temple. He could perhaps have the most to gain here, despite having limited experience and struggling with injuries since he got to SC. For Temple’s opportunity without Bigelow, it comes down to roster logistics. He is the truest nose tackle on the roster outside of Woods and Bigelow. Pelon can play the nose as mentioned, but Temple is prototypical there. Given how much Woods will be naturally rotated out –he was continuously given a breather for Dion Bailey on passing downs last year– Temple should find himself into the rotation by default. It’s the best opportunity he’s had since he became a Trojan, and the most pivotal, as USC cannot afford to lose another lineman that can play nose tackle.